Good History

Christopher Hill

  • After the Reformation: Essays in Honour of J.H. Hexter edited by Barbara Malament
    Manchester, 363 pp, £17.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 7190 0805 0
  • Puritans and Adventurers by T.H. Breen
    Oxford, 270 pp, £10.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 502728 0
  • On History by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sarah Matthews
    Weidenfeld, 226 pp, £10.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 297 77880 3
  • Sociology and History by Peter Burke
    Allen and Unwin, 116 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 502728 0

Professor Hexter made his mark in the learned world over forty years ago with an article in the American Historical Review called ‘The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents’. He pointed out that many members of the Long Parliament whom historians had traditionally labelled ‘Independents’ were appointed elders of the Presbyterian Church set up in 1645-8, and that many ‘Presbyterians’ sat in the Rump of the Long Parliament, which used to be described as ‘Independent’. To upset so many apple-carts in so short a space must have given him great pleasure: since his article no responsible historian has ever dared to use the labels ‘Presbyterian’ and ‘Independent’ in the old carefree way. Three years later followed The Reign of King Pym, a masterly study of Parliamentary politics during the early years of the English Revolution which has dominated historical thinking ever since. In 1952, he published More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea, a competent but not epoch-making work. Since then he has published no single full-length work of historical research. The editor of the volume under review says that ‘for over thirty years … he has served as the conscience of his fellow scholars’. He has written books with titles like Doing History and The History Primer.

The contents of this festschrift are rather curious. There is nothing on the House of Commons in the 1640s, on which Hexter’s best work was written, though Elizabeth Read Foster analyses ‘The Journal of the House of Lords for the Long Parliament’. There is nothing on Sir Thomas More. Few of the contributors are former pupils. The five most distinguished are neither pupils nor colleagues nor even Americans. A specially commissioned article by a professor of philosophy, Louis O. Mink, discusses Hexter’s theories of history – his most recent interest.

Mink is polite but rather devastatingly unenthusiastic. His conclusion appears to be that what Hexter has said, in several volumes, is that good history is what good historians write. As one whom Hexter does not regard as a good historian, I would feel happier with rather more definition here. We all think our own kind of history the right kind, but Hexter’s kind is perhaps narrower than that of some very good historians. Mink observes that ‘Hexter seldom resists the temptation to caricature his philosophical adversaries, a temptation all the more seductive because those adversaries have not joined the debate and therefore appear in it only by courtesy of his imputations.’ Discussing Hexter’s view that ‘perceptions, intentions and ideas should not be imputed to people who could not possibly have entertained them,’ Mink remarks mildly that ‘a salutary maxim, even though argued and illustrated, is not a theory of history.’ The argument that ‘ “class interest” cannot be an explanation of the actions of people who have no conception of the class to which they have been retrospectively assigned ... is a different kind of thesis,’ which ‘cannot be settled one way or the other merely by examining historical evidence’.

The reference is to one of Hexter’s best-known (but in my view least satisfactory) essays, ‘The Myth of the Middle Class’. Rightly pointing out that the middle class tends to be continually rising in historians’ accounts, and that the phrase is frequently used without proper definition, Hexter too easily knocks down his men of straw. Some historians argued that ‘the middle class’ ruled England in the 16th century; others argued that ‘the middle class’ came to power in the 17th century. Both statements cannot be true, but it does not therefore follow that both are false. The answer lies in careful definition of terms and careful historical analysis. But some historians were so overwhelmed by Hexter’s brusque knockdown arguments that, as Laura Stevenson O’Connell puts it in this volume, ‘in the years following [Hexter’s] attack on the “myth of the middle class” ’ they dropped the phrase, ‘constructing instead new models of the Tudor social hierarchy that omitted the middle class altogether’.

But the middle class, under another name, is in again these days. Conrad Russell, Hexter’s successor at Yale and no friend of loose generalisation, has recently envisaged ‘a new social change explanation’ of the English Civil War, based on the power of the rising yeomanry, tradesmen and artificers. I think he is right: I am sure Hexter is wrong to extend his argument that ‘ideas should not be imputed to people who could not possibly have entertained them’ to conclude that ‘events in the past should not be described in terms which contemporaries could not possibly have entertained.’ Men died of TB before the disease was diagnosed; the thing ‘revolution’ could happen before men had a word for it. How indeed could they have a word for it until it had happened?

David Underdown, one of the five big names contributing to this festschrift, has a characteristically wise survey of ‘Community and Class’ in the English Revolution. Disregarding Hexter’s prohibitions, he concludes: ‘The Marxist model of local political behaviour is useful in that it reminds us that the English Revolution was not simply a collision between groups of peers and gentry operating in a social vacuum.’ He then adds, however: ‘The analysis is most valid for places in which industrial or commercial development had produced something resembling a class society: in the towns – London above all – and in areas with mixed industrial and agrarian economics. It is less easily applied to the wider world of rural England’ – which Underdown goes on to discuss.

G.R. Elton’s piece on ‘Politics and the Pilgrimage of Grace’ is fascinating. That rebellion turns out to have been the creation of a court faction, the enemies of Thomas Cromwell trying to oust him by stirring up popular revolt against him. They ‘utilised the social, economic and religious grievances to be found in the disaffected North, grievances linked not to feudal or popular uproar, but to the increasing distrust felt by the regional gentry towards a threatening and revolutionary court policy’. Ideology was as unimportant as it always has been for Elton. And he leaves us with the sort of provocative remark we expect of him: ‘The situation in the North in 1536 resembled much more the situation which produced the civil war of the 17th century than that which accounts for the civil war of the 15th.’ ‘Discuss,’ as they say in exam papers.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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